Women in Ancient Rome

Women in Ancient Rome

Women in ancient Roman society were given considerable honor, possibly as a result of treaties between the Romans and the Sabines from earlier Roman history,Fact|date=May 2008 and as a result of the emphasis on child-bearing in a society with high child mortality rates.Fact|date=May 2008 This honor was more in theory than in practice.When|date=May 2008

Although they had citizenship and powers over their property,Fact|date=May 2008 Roman women had very little freedom in society. The extent of their freedom and the state of their welfare were almost completely dependent on their relationships with husbands and fathers and their social class.Fact|date=May 2008 This presents difficulties to historians in disentangling individual women's identities, as women referred to by name in the ancient sources are scarce.Fact|date=May 2008 Contemporary accounts typically elevate particularly exceptional characters, and reveal very little about the lives and roles of everyday Roman women.Fact|date=May 2008

Roman law

Most Roman women married in their late teens to early twenties, though patrician girl may have married early in their teens. Among the elite, fourteen represented the division between childhood and adolescence. Under Roman law, marriages were of three kinds - sacred by the sharing of bread ("conferrateo"), by purchase ("coemptio"), and by mutual cohabitation ("usus"). Patricians always married conferrateo, while plebeians married by the latter two kinds. In the last type of marriage, if a woman was absent for three consecutive nights, at least once a year she would avoid her husband establishing legal control over her.

Other types of marriage involved legal control (and ownership) of a woman and her dowry and inheritances passing from the father (or the pater familias, his lineal ancestor) to the husband (or his paterfamilias). For instance, in marriages with "manus" (literally, "to hand"), a bride came under the legal authority of her husband or father-in-law, essentially as a minor. In marriages without manus, which was the norm by the 1st century BCE, wives could remain under the legal authority of their fathers, thereby retaining inheritance rights. In these cases, the wife lived with her husband, but did not become officially incorporated into her husband's family. Most Roman women received dowries when they married, to enable them to marry well, and to compensate for their loss of rights in their natal family. However, control of the dowry usually rested with the husband (or his pater familias), although in the Late Republic, many women were able to control their dowries and inheritances on their own.

Women were generally held to be minors in Roman law. A married woman generally fell under the guardianship of her husband (or his pater familias). A widow or fatherless girl fell under the guardianship of her nearest male "agnate". Under the Twelve Tables, if a man died intestate, his property passed to his nearest male agnate, and if no such agnate lived, to his nearest clansmen. However, by will, until the lex Voconia (169 BCE), a man could leave property to his widow, daughters, or granddaughters.

Divorce, though allowed by Roman law, was a relatively informal affair. It simply involved a wife leaving her husband’s house, and often taking back her dowry. The first recorded Roman divorce took place in 230 BCE, when one Spurius Carvilius Ruga (possibly the former consul Spurius Carvilius Maximus Ruga) divorced his wife on grounds of infertility or sterility; [1] however, the first Roman divorces probably took place around 604 BCE or earlier, according to Valerius Maximus. (see note 1 below). The frequency of remarriages among the elite was high. Remarriage was an available option for the widow or divorceé if she was still of childbearing age. However, because marriage was considered a vocation for Roman women, women who remained wedded to one man were highly celebrated for their devotion.

Roman women in private

The place of the matrona (a Roman woman) in the society was taking care of the family and household. She was under the protection of the "pater familias" (the master of the house), either the father or the husband. She was not entitled to have any public office or to participate in any political activities. Travel, even accompanied, was all but impossible.

In the early to middle years of the Republic, women were forbidden to leave (or discouraged from leaving) the house with their heads unveiled, to attend the games without the consent of their husbands, to speak privately to any slave or freedmen, to drink wine publicly or privately. (If they did, they could be punished or even be divorced). R. Phillips "A Short History of Wine" pg 46-56 Harper Collins 2000 ISBN 0066212820] Women were not allowed to dine with their husbands; they dined alone or with other women or with their children. Women attended their husbands and sons while they dined, but sat upright, never lying or reclining on couches. In the Late Republic many of these customs changed, although they continued to persist in more conservative families. Historians attribute the introduction of Roman women into the dining room to Etruscan influence.

Women were expected to take care of the household, to spin wool and weave cloth (of wool or linen), to take care of the children, and to minister to the needs of the men in the family. In wealthier families slaves took over the actual tasks, but women were still expected to supervise all chores.

Education of women

Education of women began around 200 BCE, possibly in the household of Scipio Africanus Major and his relatives. These more liberal Romans wanted their wives and daughters educated so that their moral fibre would be improved, they themselves would be better companions to their husbands, and most importantly, so that they could better supervise the education and upbringing of their children. One of the reasons that Tiberius Gracchus Major chose to marry the much younger Cornelia was that he wanted an educated wife. Within a century, the education of elite Roman women was the norm. Education meant literacy, presumably numeracy, knowledge of both Greek and Latin, and reading of the classics in both languages, and also history. Girls were educated along with boys in some households, but their lessons tended to differ as they grew older. Literary education beyond the basics of reading and writing was available to some elite girls. These girls received such education, however, not to prepare themselves for future occupations, but to increase their value as wives.

Roman women in public

The place of women had relatively little fluidity in ancient Roman civilization. Women were typically confined to lead the lives of housewives, taking care of the state of affairs in the home; despite the degree of their education or their social status, they also had to stay home and complete the household chores. Wool work, however, was a common occupation of women from all social classes, though this, too, was done in the home. Furthermore, not only were the most noble of occupations (such as those in the military and in politics) off-limits to women, but even the wives of men with powerful positions in such occupations did little besides supervising the home, slaves, and staff. There were a small number of women writers and poets; their work, however, was not taken seriously in Roman society.

Some women (i.e. the Vestal Virgins) were able to gain respect and honor as priestesses. The primary task of the Vestal Virgins was to maintain the sacred fire of Vesta; priestesses' presence was considered necessary in certain rituals. Wealthier women could also gain respect by funding these ceremonies. [See Mary Lefkowitz's article, "A Woman's Place Was in the Temple", Wilson Quarterly, Winter '93).]

Roman women kept out of the public sphere until 195 BCE when women revolted against proposals to retain the Lex oppia, a law against luxuries which prevented them from wearing gold or silver or expensive clothing, or from riding in chariots or in expensive litters. These laws had been passed in 215 BCE in the aftermath of Cannae, but they were no longer felt necessary. Cato the Censor chided Roman women for speaking out and congregating in public, and for their aggressiveness in what should have been left to their menfolk to decide or represent in public. Nevertheless, the laws were abolished and the women triumphant. (His opposition did not hurt Cato's political career). Later, in 42 BCE, Roman women, led by Hortensia, successfully protested against laws designed to tax Roman women. [Pomeroy, Sarah Jane, "Women in Classical Antiquity"]

One notable woman was Livia Drusilla Augusta, (58 BCE29 CE), who was the wife of Caesar Augustus and the most powerful woman in the early Roman empire, acting several times as regent and being Augustus' faithful advisor. Several women of the Imperial family, notably Agrippina the Younger, gained political influence as well as public prominence.

Most Roman women known to us lived during the Late Republic or in Imperial Rome, partly because Roman women living in the Early to Middle Republic had little political power, virtually no legal independence (except as Vestal Virgins or in other rare cases), and were absent in official histories. However, many role models -- such as Lucretia, Aemilia Paulla, and Cornelia Africana -- available to Roman women lived in or were born in the Early to Middle Republic.

ee also

*List of distinguished Roman women
*Roman naming conventions for females


1. "'Timing the first Roman divorce "'
Dionysius of Halicarnassus in "Antiquitates Romanae", 2.25 (written c. 7 BCE) wrote that "in the one hundred and thirty-seventh Olympiad, in the consulship of Marcus Pomponius [Matho] and Gaius Papirius [Maso] , i.e. in 231230 BCE, Spurius Carvilius, a man of distinction, was the first to divorce his wife." The cause was her barrenness; however, this divorce did not make him popular among the people. It is ironic that this would be the first divorce (as Dionysius of Halicarnassus states, based on hearsay), since the Twelve Tables (450 BCE) promulgated over two hundred years earlier did make provision for divorce. According to Dionysus, Spurius Carvilius was a man of distinction; other sources (without specific citations) claim that he was a freedman (i.e. a former slave). [http://www.patentednews.com/interesting/ancient-rome-inventors-spurius-carvilius-ruga/22/]

The Wikipedia entry on Spurius Carvilius suggests that the date given for this divorce is wrong; that the divorce probably took place well before the Twelve Tables legalized divorce, perhaps as early as 600 BCE.

A Roman consul by the name of Spurius Carvilius Maximus Ruga served with Manius Pomponius Matho in 233 BCE; it is possible that the historian Dionysius of Halicarnassus (writing more than 200 years later from hearsay accounts) confused the freedman Spurius Carvilius (living circa 600 BCE) with this man living in 233 BCE.

Aulus Gellius in the Noctes Atticae (c. 150 CE), 4.3.1 writes that "Spurius Carvilius, who was surnamed Ruga, a man of rank" [thus possibly the man who was consul] divorced his wife for barrenness in the "consulship of Marcus Atilius and Publius Valerius" (i.e. in the year 227 BCE when "Publius Valerius L.f. Flaccus" and Marcus Atilius M.f. Regulus were consuls). However, in other accounts, Gellius varies the story in dating and is less certain of his sources. In all sources, however, it is agreed that "Spurius Carvilius" divorced his wife for barrenness in the first recorded Roman divorce. [http://www.aoal.org/cg/Classics/RomanDivorce.htm] Valerius Maximus differs, saying that one L. Annius divorced his wife (without consulting his friends) and was removed from the Senate by the censors in 307 BCE. A modern writer suggest that divorces took place earlier, and were not properly regulated; hence the need to include a law on divorce in the Twelve Tables. [http://www.aoal.org/cg/Classics/RomanDivorce.htm]


External links

* [http://web.mac.com/heraklia/Dominae/ FEMINAE ROMANAE: The Women of Ancient Rome (2001-2006).] Site discussing Roman women of all walks of life.
* [http://www.dl.ket.org/latin2/mores/women/womenful.htm Dr. Susan Martin, "Private Lives and Public Personae", 1997.]
* [http://www.womenintheancientworld.com/index.htm WomenintheAncientWorld.com (2005).]
*Daehner, Jens (ed.), "The Herculaneum Women: History, Context, Identities" (Los Angeles: The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2007), Pp. xiv, 178.

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